The Case of the “Ancient” Dog Vessel

Recently I went to a small, local flea market and the last thing I bought was this small pottery dog vessel. I kept thinking “Gosh, this thing looks old. Really old. Kinda Pre-Columbian.” But of course, I know nothing about this type of art and stuff like this is faked…all…the…time. Still I had to buy it.

At home I got down to the business of researching it, but I’ll say the smart thing to do would have been to ask the seller what she knew about the piece. (Duh!!) She might have said “Oh my daughter got this in Mexico at a tourist shop in the ’90s” which would have helped a lot! Live and learn.

First: Identify

What was this thing? I googled many search terms, one sometimes leading to another:

  • Pre-columbian dog cup
  • Antique Andean dog pottery
  • Mesoamerican pottery
  • Mayan dog pottery
  • Primitive pottery dog pot
  • Prehistoric Mimbres primitive clay dog pot
  • Ancient Mexican pottery dog vessel
  • Moche pottery
  • Mexican clay dog
  • Colima pottery dog

In several of the dog searches I noticed the depiction of the distinctive Colima dog which has large pointed ears as mine does and many with the same grimace. But my pot or vessel isn’t shaped like typical Colima dog vessels.

Now Moche pottery was frequently decorated with red designs (like the faint red spots on mine), but none of their pottery styles matched mine either.

Moche dog vessel with stirrup handle

So I kept looking and finally thousands of images later I found one that had been auctioned off that was quite similar to mine even down to the feet and some red markings. But look how it’s described. Everything is a question mark! Still it sold for $305!

Here’s mine…

Unfortunately, that auction didn’t answer any questions for me. And some replicas look darn convincing…

Second: Age Tests

Next I started looking at ways, as an amateur, to determine if the vessel was even old. I found a couple of options.

Smell

For pottery, it is common knowledge for the experts that ancient clay, when applied with a wet rag has a damp and very odorous smell. New clay won’t be able to produce such an odor. Only earthenware that has been buried for many, many years will smell with a dank odor.

Jade Simpson

This video from Artemis Gallery talks about this very thing.

Manganese Deposits

Ancient clay vessels that have been buried in the ground will have manganese deposits visible to the naked eye. Unfortunately these deposits can be painted on by unscrupulous dealers. I tried to find pictures of what these deposits look like and so far haven’t found anything helpful.

High Tech Options

Now if I was an archeologist with a lab at my disposal I could do thermoluminescence testing and CT scans. (This interesting article from Gilcrease Museum details some of the high-tech procedures used to determine authenticity.)

My Results

I wet a small portion of my dog and sniffed it. It smelled earthy, but wasn’t a strong enough smell to me to be called dank! And I have no idea what manganese deposits should look like.

The Bottomline

It is likely a replica of a Mesoamerican piece featuring a Colima dog. A charming copy, likely a vintage one, though copies of pre-columbian pieces are readily available today.

But I decided to try one last gambit. Stanford University is in my back yard so I emailed their archaeology department to see if they’d like to take a peek at it. In exchange for their expertise I offered to do some volunteer work for them. I’m 99.9% sure nothing will come of this but I figured why not at least try!

And even as a replica, this vessel has some value and this rendition seems to be scarce, so I’m glad I bought it! I’ll list in a few days if I don’t hear back from Stanford. [Editor’s Note: Stanford didn’t get back to me.]

Happy hunting and researching,

Karen

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